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Thursday, 20 April, 2000, 13:33 GMT 14:33 UK
Should we trust scientists?
Do you have faith in scientists, or has the BSE crisis and endless speculation about genetically modified crops made you doubt the experts?Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.
Scientists from the Global Environmental Change Programme at Sussex University are warning the UK government that they must find better ways to restore public confidence in science, or more crises will emerge.
Next on the worry list they say are the safety of mobile telephones, and the effects of chemicals which disrupt human hormones.
Does the world of scientific discovery scare you, or are you excited by technological developments and what they teach us about our world? Do you think it's possible to reassure the public when there are so many horror stories in the press? Tell us what you think.
Science is a tool to describe how things work,
and like anything else (cars, knives,
money, medicine) can be very useful
if used properly. As we are already
aware with the above, the abuse of
these tools can lead to disastrous
consequences. Unfortunately the abuse of
Science isn't so obvious.
Sarah, Sweden (ex - UK)
Science may be a particularly useful way of knowledge, but how much do most people know about the way its institutions are really sustained? Scientists say things they believe they have found out - and in that, like the rest of us, they may be mistaken and definitely remain ignorant about much else. Most scientists also happen to like doing and making a living from science. Therefore
they often believe - as well as say -things that make it more likely they get support for labs and students needed to do more science. Is that corrupt? Or is it just dedication to a methodological cause? I guess the only answer is to read Paul Feyerabend, the late great philosopher of science.
It's not science that causes the problems. Science is after all a methodology to find the truth. It is bad reporting and deliberate scare mongering for political or otherwise ulterior motives that causes the problems.
In these times of politically polluted scientific culture, where scientists do take political stand, instead of pure scientific stand, it is very difficult to distinguish the expert comments from a pure scientist among many politically biased scientists. Now a days publishing papers in hard core scientific journals like physical review is some what depending upon whether you are well known in the circuit or not!
What type of scientist?
Psychiatrist or mathematician?
Physician or Physicist?
Would you trust your politician more than Madame
If such global questions are asked one has to ask the reporter about his sincerity.
This question in its simplification sounds to me as once more like: " Kill the Dinosaur Geneticists!"
One of the most common problems with scientists is that they fail to inform the public about what they are doing. Sometimes scientists are conducting experiments that they would never be
allowed to conduct if the public had any idea about what was going on. I wonder if this is intentional. I'm not anti-science but it seems we definitely need more safeguards and better training in ethics.
Yes, we should question scientists - to make sure we get a truthful and complete picture. But we should also question those who want to dispense with science and all the many benefits it has brought - medical, educational, and cultural.
Science is a tool to be used by Mankind to meet his ends. Its use can create problems for the human race as a whole, for example pollution of the marine environment.
However we can also use science to solve those problems we have created ourselves.
It's a question of how we use it.
George Orwell and Aldous Huxley warned us against being lulled into evolving a technocracy replete with mind-conditioned zombies. Besides, unquestioning faith in anything leads to fanaticism. Scientific development and an ongoing drive to update universal scientific awareness must go hand in hand if we are to stay abreast of change and avoid becoming prisoners of our own inventiveness. We must be particularly mindful not to discard practical moral value systems along with the 'bathwater' of our obsolescent theology. This is where the secular state model breaks down and is shown to be pitifully inadequate. It is a real problem.
I agree that it is business and the valuation of wealth and power that causes most of the blunders, deception, misinformation and consequent lack of faith in scientists. Also I try to remember that the one thing scientists prove conclusively every year, is that they didn't have it quite right last year. This is the one scientific fact I can trust every year. That said, I love the search and the discovery that science brings. I am, after all, writing this on a computer.
Firstly, I hate the word "scientists" when the media reports some research story: there are geologists, microbiologists, chemists, physicists etc all doing very different work. And TV portrays us as freaks: why are the weirdo nutcases always "scientists" and not cuddly, loveable artists? People don't trust science when they don't understand it, but that's not scientists' fault - they don't have some hidden agenda -their work is usually for the benefit of others, without reaping huge rewards themselves. How many bankers/ accountants/ solicitors can claim that??
If the public was better educated, they could make informed choices that scientists
provide. But, since most people only have a vague knowledge of science due to television
and movies, people are easily convinced of quick-cures and scary-doomsday scenario. If more
people understood the risks and benefits of science, they would make better choices. Until then, the media will sell sci-fi fantasies and horror to an uneducated public.
As I see it, the problem isn't with Science, it's with corporate science. Corporations who want to put advances in science directly to market rather than waiting to test. I don't see science itself and the pursuit of knowledge damaging to our lives or environment but the uses we put this knowledge to many times raise scepticism. I don't think we'll see immediate problems with much genetic modification but who's to say what will happen 20 years from now? The only way we'll know is by safely testing, OR else rely on short term tests and find out we made an irreparable mistake (or possible a good decision.)
I think that scientists should be trusted. The issue of how some scientists decide to use their science should not be confused by showing distrust in people working with science. Scientists, and researchers deserve credit for all the work they have done in order to eradicate some viral, bacterial diseases, and not to forget achievements regarding genetic diseases, and cancer using gene therapy.
As we have become a more technologically focused society, the mistakes made or (more usually) the misuse of advancements is bound to have an wider impact, simply because of the greater impact that technology has in general upon our lives. Today, scientific error has as great a potential as political error to cause harm. It also has a similar chance of doing good.
I feel that the general public no longer holds scientists in the same high regard they once did. This is likely to be ignorance on their part, due to the media using science as a source of hype and shock headlines, rather than actually informing. If the public could be made more aware of the scientific principles upon which many modern breakthroughs are based, they would undoubtedly be more likely to accept new ideas than reject them in fear.
What people are misunderstanding is that whereas the results of experiments should largely stand on their own, what they mean, and whether the methods used are appropriate, are a matter of opinion.
It seems also that the waters are muddied in the minds of the general public by the lack of distinction between science and technology. I believe that our education system and the media are somewhat to blame for this, as well as the public, who wish to be spoon-fed the simple answer where none exist.
A Kirby, Wales
Being a scientist I would say you can trust an
independent scientist (i.e. one not funded by a
commercial interest) to report what they believe
are accurate data and the most reasonable explanation
for that data. Scientists are however just people and for
every correct theory there were many incorrect ones that
proceeded it. The question is not should you trust
scientists but should you believe what they are telling you.
The difference is a subtle but important one.
Ultimately most people are right in saying that scientists are just people who are doing their jobs, with their own particular challenges. What I think most people have failed to mention is that scientists are more and more controlled by big multinationals, which are ultimately amoral. Along with Multinationals we have 'democratic' governments, full of ministers who are all looking out for their own careers.
Science is wonderful, provided the scientists are moral and have principals they will govern their work. Unfortunately many times this is not the case. Money, greed and ambition blinds the scientists. Therefore - no at the moment I do not trust them.
I think that trusting science is the only way forward.
Tell the Untouchable caste in India that they don't need science.
Tell the 20,000 prostitutes in Cambodia that they don't need progress.
Tell the parents of a child saved from death by cancer that they don't need science.
Science is our birthright.
The issue is not really whether we should trust scientists. It is really about understanding the limits of scientific research and the state of knowledge at any point in time.
General media reporting does have a tendency to oversimplify the issues in order to make catchy headlines.
Its not the scientists we should be worried about but
those that blow the slightest thing out of all proportion.
The big conglomerates are now using consumer's fear
as yet another marketing tool, trying to give the public
the impression that everything is zero risk.
Waleed Mohammad Nasser, Egypt
We are particularly selective in our trust of scientists and engineers. When it is clear that a particular technology has substantial benefits, we tend to trust, even in the event of mishaps. When substantial benefits are not so clearly apparent, we tend to revert to a default judgment, such as, "better safe than sorry". Sometimes we are wrong when we do this.
The problem, especially in the UK is that we have the notorious "two cultures" gap in which most people that run government, business and the media are "humanities" educated and are often scientifically ignorant - they expect scientists to come up with new discoveries to save their face and profits, and suddenly disappear when things go wrong
Jonathan Olver, U
It IS up to scientists to reassure and educate the public, and to make the reasons for scientific uncertainty comprehensible. We have to do better. Scientists have a responsbility to make scientific method better understood. The reason why some scientists may take opposing views on a question is that evidence in support of both of those views might exist. The real question is how to evaluate and give weight to different pieces of evidence. Not all evidence has equal weight, and this needs to be convincingly and forcefully explained by scientists instead of retreating behind laboratory doors and letting the press or politicians try to do it for us.
Scientists are no more or no less trustworthy than general population. The worry is can we trust the people who control the Scientist and hence any new discovery. These people who fund the scientific research have their own reasons why they do it. Profits, Weapons of mass distructions are some. It is these groups we need to keep an eye on
Mikko Toivonen, Finland
Over the years, as some scientists have increasingly allied themselves with big business and government in order to get the necessary funding for their projects, the image of the scientific profession as a whole has suffered. Nobody fully trusts a travelling salesperson hawking their wares, so why should we fully trust someone who is equally trying to procure money or save their reputation?
Ultimately it is no more reasonable to blame today's scientists for the ills that some of their discoveries have caused than it is to blame the manufacturer of a set of steak knives for a stabbing attack. The responsibility for these actions must lie in the hands of those who wield the inventions - governments and big business. So yes, I trust scientists, but I don't trust the people who fund them.
As Mr. Simon points out, the average Tom, Dick nor Harry does not comprehend the actions of a scientist. This makes the populace vulnerable to a scientist's wishes. They could tell us virtually anything-and we would believe them.
I believe that science itself can do no harm, there is nothing wrong in discovering how this world works. I see no danger in mapping the human genome or cloning sheep. The only danger is fear of the unknown. When people have to deal with something they don't fully understand, myths are created. I see two ways to avoid spreading panic: keeping the society unaware of any scientific experiments (impossible) or keeping the society well educated and with some basic knowledge about these experiments.
Nick E, UK
Yes, I trust experimental science.GM foods, such as rice and soy bean products are the best way of improving crop yields, especially in third world countries
An objective study of history pretty quickly reveals that while technology progresses, real social progress remains elusive. As a civilization, humanity takes a few steps forward here and a step or two back there over the course of centuries, remaining relatively stagnant. I have to wonder if the day Einstein predicted, of our technology outstripping our humanity, is already here? It will inevitibly arrive.
As a former technophobe, I can empathise with those who harbour a distrust of scientist as we plunge headlong into the uncertain future. It is a bit unsettling to think that so much energy is being focused on creating new technologies when we have yet to reckon with the ones already created. I am not a reactionary, but human societies have yet to gain my confidence in the way they use technological advancements. I am not afraid of science, discovery or the creation of new technology per se, but I am concerned about the hands into which these new technologies will fall.
Phil Adams, USA A little learning is a dangerous thing. I suppose that it is natural for the average person who doesn't understand the complexities of a given science to be suspicious of its practitioners' competence and motives. But let's not let small-minded ignorance be an obstacle to beneficial progress. Let those qualified to judge do the judging.
Matt Simon, USA
Really, the problem isn't one of trusting science, but of trusting industry. The world is inherently full of risks and danger, which science can discover, cause, or diminish, depending on how well it is understood and how it is used. Not every danger is immediately obvious, and by the time it can be discovered that some product is harmless, a company may find itself looking down the barrel of a mega-dollar liability suit.
I am surprised that scientists at Sussex University are looking to the UK Government for something they (as well as those of us in this profession) should be asking ourselves. Scientists are no different than the professionals in other fields of activity. While most of us toil at something we love and try to push a little farther the frontiers of our understanding, we have also attracted public attention increasingly for the problems, from prematurely publicised results, contradictory conclusions to drastic revisions of scientific beliefs, and scandals.
Well, if it wasn't for the
of you would
have died before you
Where would we be
no internet, no cars,
nuclear power, no space
exploration, no cheap
holidays to Florida, no
TV, no GM pizza
and... the "no" list goes on!
C M Sanyk, USA
It's not up to scientists reassure the public, but up to the press who should not try to blow controversial findings out of all proportion in order just to sell more papers by scaring the public.
If science wasn't in the pocket of big business I would trust it. Scientists tell us of the link between mobile phones and brain tumours, then claim no such link exists. GM food is safe, or is dangerous depending on which scientist you listen to.
How are we supposed to take them seriously when they take diametrically opposing viewpoints?
14 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Science 'not enough' to allay fears
18 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Ministers 'ignoring public' on GM food
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